Jaime and MelvilleJaime Manrique was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, on June 16, 1949. The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of his autobiographical book Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me.

This is my first memory: I'm taking a shower with one of my young aunts and I'm reaching for her pubis. She giggles and swirls around me. I'm standing on my own, but I don't talk yet. The bathroom where we're showering is the only place in our house I vaguely remember. The white-washed walls are damp, streaked with lichen growing around the edges of the cement floor. The house is in the town of Ciénaga, which means swamp. I know we lived in that house for the first two years of my life because of surviving telegrams sent to our house on Nuevo Callejón for my first two birthdays.

Before I was born, my parents kept a house on the outskirts of the Colombian village of Río Frío, on one of my father's banana plantations.

I don't know how my parents met. Because of a surviving telegram to my mother in Barranquilla, dated November 15, 1944, I know that Soledad Ardila and Gustavo Manrique met sometime toward the end of 1944: "Received your telegram. Without you I can't live. Let me know when you're ready to return. Kisses. Gustavo." And, in a letter to my mother of October 11, 1945, my father writes: "You don't know how much I'm thinking of you as we approach the anniversary of the day on which I was so fortunate to meet you."

It seems that my parents met in Barranquilla, where my mother had gone "to sew" (my grandmother told me this when I was forty). My father was a married man and lived with his wife and children in the Caribbean port of Santa Marta. My mother's story is shrouded in mystery. Apparently, she was married to a man by the name of Leal. I conclude this because of a number of telegrams my father sent to my mother when she visited her father's home in El Banco in 1945. The telegrams are addressed to Soledad Ardila de Leal. I remember too seeing, among my mother's papers during my childhood and adolescence, a picture of a little boy in his coffin. This child, it seems, was conceived in that marriage.

Just about everything I know about my parents before I was born I've learned from fifty-six telegrams and thirty-six letters my father sent to my mother from November 15, 1944, to November 16, 1951, and from The Story of Our Baby (my baby book), in which many of the main events of the first six years of my life were recorded. In my childhood my father and mother would often remind my sister and me that these letters represented proof that we were our father's children—because he refused to acknowledge us legally as his offspring. I grew up thinking of these letters as a weapon, precious documents that would eventually entitle me to my rightful share of my father's estate. The letters proved unnecessary in that regard, because my father (as he had always promised) acknowledged us as his children in his last will and testament.

I was at my mother's house for Christmas 1989, rummaging through my bedroom closet one night, when my father's correspondence to my mother, along with my baby book, fell into my hands. I couldn't quite believe my eyes: that spring a fire had raged throughout my mother's house, destroying most of my books and almost all my early manuscripts and correspondence. And yet these documents had survived untouched. That night I read the letters for the first time in many years, and they unsettled me in a way I could not have foreseen. Reading the letters, I heard my father's voice as he was at the time he wrote them—a man in his midforties, a man deeply in love. Because I had hardly known my father, the letters revealed him to me in a surprising way: they were so passionate and eloquent that I realized I was a writer because of him.

To me, these extant documents were an omen. My mother had saved them for almost five decades; they had traveled from Colombia to the States; they had survived a fire. Now I understood that she treasured them as much for being proof of her children's legitimacy as for their being great love letters to her. My father's passion for my mother was so searing that I was overcome with sensual languor just reading these documents. I was almost as old as my father was when he wrote them, and these letters made me sad. I had never loved anyone so intensely, nor had anyone loved me with such an ardent display of passion and for such a long period of time. I felt as though the man who had written them half a century ago was more alive than I felt reading them.

My father was born in Ibagué, a small Andean town in the interior of Colombia, on November 15, 1901. My paternal grandparents were Antonio Manrique Arango and María Eusebia Álvarez Uribe. In Colombian society those names are as blue chip as you can get. I've been told by my mother that my paternal grandfather was a general in the Colombian army. My father enlisted and served on the island of San Andrés in the Caribbean, where he attained the rank of sergeant. I've seen a couple of pictures of my father around this time looking dapper in a white suit and straw hat. He's movie-star handsome, slender, manly, a beautifully bred stud—the picture of a winner.

My father was in his midtwenties when he moved to the mainland, specifically, the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Here he must have met Josefina Danies Bermudes, an heiress and member of one of the most prominent families in Santa Marta, the oldest Spanish city in South America. They were married on April 21, 1932.

Besides his good looks, my father's main asset was his ancient and distinguished name, which goes all the way back to the time of the Holy Roman Empire. The first famous Manriques appear in Spain in the fifteenth century. They are poets as well as warriors. Jorge Manrique, one of the most influential poets in Spanish literature, wrote Couplets on the Death of My Father circa 1476. Manrique, a captain, died in 1479 of wounds sustained in battle and was survived by his wife and several children, one of them male. The last historical reference to this male heir is in 1515, and he apparently died without children. However, Jorge Manrique was one of many children. His father, Don Rodrigo, the famous warrior who in 1474 won military jurisdiction over Castile, freeing it from the Moors, had married three times. The vicereine of New Spain, María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (patron of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz), and Viceroy Álvaro Manrique y Zuñiga, seventh viceroy of New Spain, were descended from these Manriques. The Viceroy arrived in the New World in 1585. He was an eccentric man who traveled with his coffin, in which he slept. My father's family descends from these Manriques. Several Manriques of note lived during Colombia's colonial period—their portraits hang in many libraries and museums of Bogotá. In the nineteenth century, the Manrique family in Colombia produced a few writers and journalists.

This is one of the few memories I have of my father in my childhood: I am in my parents' bedroom; my father is in bed, wearing aquamarine cotton pajamas. I am holding my nanny's hand and my father asks me to repeat after him: "I am Jaime Manrique Ardila Álvarez Arango Uribe Benítez Salazar Santamaría, a blue blood!"

My maternal grandparents—the Ardilas—were peasants of mixed white, Indian, and African blood. My grandfather, José Ardila Puerta, and my grandmother, Serafina Ardila, were first cousins. José Ardila Puerta, my grandfather, told me his story one December afternoon in 1972 when we were visiting Barranco de Loba, the river hamlet where my grandparents were born. He was an only child who grew up with his mother (he did not mention his father). They were poor. Still in his teens, my grandfather decided to emigrate to Cuba to make his fortune. He journeyed down river to the port of Barranquilla, then a departure point for Havana. To earn money for his passage, my grandfather built a raft and cut wood in the swamps surrounding the city. Eventually, he bought a ticket, but the night before he was to leave he got drunk and missed his boat.

My grandfather decided to return home. Again he earned money chopping wood and used his savings to buy goods to barter in the towns and settlements along the banks of the Magdalena River. Buying and reselling, he eventually made his way back up river to Barranco de Loba. The trip was a success after all: he didn't make it to Cuba, but he made enough money to buy his first cow and his first plot of land, La Esperanza. He became affluent.

Now a man of means, he started his first family with Serafina Ardila, my grandmother. They didn't get married because she was not his equal. Whereas he had "traveled," could read and write, and was moreno (a light-skinned black), my grandmother was illiterate and of pure African descent. Their first child was my mother, Soledad, born in 1919. My uncle José Antonio was born in 1922.

Several years later, my grandfather began his second family with Berta Feria. She was light-skinned enough to pass for white, and she had attended convent school.

My grandmother Serafina (Mamá Fina) is still alive and is almost a hundred years old. After my grandfather deserted her, she bore children by several men. Her children are my aunts and uncles, but because they are poor, uneducated, and black, and because Colombia is a racist and classist society, when I was growing up I wasn't encouraged to acknowledge them as my relatives. In fact, I was ashamed of them.

With my step-grandmother, Papá José had ten children. All went to school, some graduated from college, and a few have been successful in the world. They were the uncles and aunts my mother encouraged me to acknowledge; they were the only family I ever knew. Until a few days before he died, my grandfather remained a Mason and rejected Catholicism.

My grandfather and my father were the same age. At my birth they were in their late forties and they resembled each other: portly men who carried themselves with great dignity, almost majesty. My mother has a photograph of my grandfather as a young man in a suit and hat that bears a strong resemblance to a picture of my father dressed up as a dandy—the peasant impersonating the aristocrat.